Is Chavez a Dictator?

Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro have often met as the leaders of their countries, and they have clearly developed a warm personal friendship as well.  The Bush administration, Fox News, and the Venezuelan opposition try to use this as "proof" that Chavez is taking orders from Castro, that Chavez intends to turn Venezuela into a "communist dictatorship," with capitalism severely curtailed, and freedom of speech limited.

In reality there has been a lot of cooperation between Cuba and Venezuela. Cuba is a world leader in many aspects of medicine, and Venezuela has oil, so they have traded oil for doctors, and also for technical assistance in education, agriculture, and other areas.   But the idea that capitalism is under attack in Venezuela is simply absurd.  I was there for a month before Christmas, and the scene I saw was more like capitalism on steroids.  Venezuela has huge malls with atriums and half a dozen floors, stores just like ours, and lots of stuff made in China, just like in the U.S.

Venezuela also has a huge "informal economy," including thousands upon thousands of street vendors selling just about everything.  Food, produce, clothing of all kinds, watches, jewelry, books, luggage, copies of CD’s and DVD’s, little figures to put in crèches (crèches  were everywhere), makeup, cell phones, office supplies…  Before Chavez the police used to clear them off the streets and take their merchandise.  Now they completely fill the sidewalks in many parts of the city, and nobody bothers them.  This year people were buying a lot!  Ironically the prosperity that led to all this consumption has led to a huge surge in the flow of trash.  There were little mountains of it in Caracas streets when I arrived.  By the time I left a month later they were just starting to get it under control.

I saw McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken, TGI Friday’s, Subway, and Little Caesar’s, demonstrating that franchising is functioning well.   One of the tackier symbols of international capitalism is the huge red coffee mug inscribed with the word "NESCAFE" on top of a tall building in the heart of the city.  Venezuela has signed joint venture agreements with 19 international oil companies, and is negotiating with the 20th, ExxonMobile.  The government is vigorously supporting small businesses in the form of cooperatives.  In cities across the country neighborhoods are organizing, with help from the government, to draw up maps of the settlements where poor people have built houses on public land so they can get titles to their houses, thereby creating massive amounts of private property in the form of titled real estate.  The government has been quite encouraging to capitalist development in general, seeing it as fundamental to a prosperous society.

Chavistas make it clear that they are not following any model from Russia, China, or Cuba, or any other scheme or theory of how society should be organized.  They often talk about socialism, but they don’t mean nationalizing industry or eliminating private property.   By "socialism" they simply mean basing decisions on what is good for the whole of society.  Chavez frequently refers to Jesus as a great teacher of socialism, with his message of love and caring for the least among us.

The army runs mega-mercados in various parts of town.  These are big open air fairs, where the soldiers sell pork hindquarters at a very low price.  Hundreds of people line up for meat, and they also buy things from farmers, fishmongers, and other private merchants at a big open air market.  The prices of basic commodities are regulated, and low.  But the fun part is all the "non-basic" commodities, like the machine that squeezes fresh sugar cane into a cup of juice, served with a squeeze of citron.   Blocks of something like brown sugar, but more delicious.  Honey in the comb.  All the usual vendors of food clothing, and everything else.  And the Venezuelan music that turns everything into a party.

This is one of the ways the army promotes national security.  It sells food that everyone can afford, and it provides small businesses with a secure location (patrolled by soldiers!) and a guaranteed clientele.  Moreover, these are customers who might have some money left in their pockets after buying basic commodities.  The Venezuelan army promotes the nutritional security of the nation, and the people create the fun and profit.

Venezuelans say that their Bolivarian Socialism is a "process," something that they are inventing, discovering, and creating.  There are some basic ideas: participatory democracy, social justice, Latin American integration, and independence from the empire to the north.  Education, health care, adequate nutrition, and decent housing seen as fundamental rights.  But there is no formula for achieving these ends.  The process is experimental and open ended.

Chavez is the president because millions of people see themselves as directly connected to this process.  Nearly all of the poor people, and a lot of the middle class, are benefiting from the educational, health, and food missions.  But many are also connected to a broad social movement consisting of neighborhood committees, cooperatives, and unions of many kinds (such as the housewives’ union.)  These people are the ones who took to the streets when the oligarchy kidnapped Chavez and tried to set up its own government.  They know that they put him back in the palace, and they approve of what he is doing there.

The oligarchy, and the portion of the middle class that looks to them for leadership, see this state of affairs as the world gone crazy.  An egomaniacal demagogue supported by a bunch of malcontents and troublemakers.  Votes bought with cheap food and Cuban doctors.  Worst of all, it’s being paid for with money that used to go to them.

The big newspapers and the private TV and radio stations are relentlessly opposed to Chavez.  They extensively quote Chavez’s critics, putting the worst possible spin on everything he does, often treating him with disrespect and derision.  Nevertheless, there has not been any attempt by the government to censor them.

The election for the National Assembly on December 4 was a good example of how the opposition press operates.  Since the constitution of 1999 has been in effect, elections for the National Assembly have not been at the same time as the election for the president.  Therefore, turnout has been low, around 30% of registered voters.  Polls gave pro-Chavez candidates a big lead, predicting a 70/30 split in the legislature.  Opponents of the government raised various fairness issues, and the election authorities made changes in the procedures that completely dealt with those issues, in the opinion of delegations of independent observers from the European Union and the Organization of American States.

Nevertheless, four days before the election all of the opposition parties agreed to boycott the election, and they told their supporters not to vote.  Of course with the opposition not voting, and with government supporters seeing no contest for their candidates, the turnout hit an all-time low of 25%.  The next day the headlines of the two biggest newspapers in Caracas triumphantly proclaimed:  "Abstention at 75%!"

In other words, the opposition had told its people not to vote, and since 75% of registered voters did not vote, they claimed that it was a great victory for their side.  In reality it was probably a rough measure of Chavez’s hard core, because who else would bother?

 Because of the boycott, 100% of the new National Assembly supports Chavez.  Already opposition figures have begun to sneer at the legislature as a mere rubber stamp for Chavez, more proof that he is a dictator, because only a dictator would have no opposition in the legislature.

50 out of 167 National Assembly members are women, by the way, a world record.  Just think of their task: creating laws to enable a peaceful revolution.

So, is Chavez a dictator?  Bush, Fox, and the Venezuelan oligarchy will tell you that he is.  But they live in a looking-glass world where conquest is called liberation, aggression is called defense, and economic domination is called free trade.  A world where real democracy is called dictatorship.

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